Storage May Be Cheap But Is It Ruining Your Photography?

A phrase commonly heard around photography sites is “storage is cheap”.

Five or 10 or 20 years ago, storing your digital images (either from digital cameras, or digital scans of film negatives) needed much greater investment, whether for the memory cards in digital cameras, or the hard drives or cloud storage you used to back up the photographs.

However, a quick look on Amazon UK tonight shows a SanDisk Ultra 64GB SD card at around £14. Which, with perhaps a typical image size of 4MB, means 16,000 images on one card.

A 1TB Toshiba external HD is about £40. Which would store a quarter of a million 4MB images.

My current Google plan offers 100GB of storage for £1.59 per month. I currently use 14GB, which includes photos and other Google products like GMail, Docs, Sheets etc.

My Flickr costs about £3.28 a month. I currently have 5000 images, uploaded over 10 years. This plan is unlimited, so would still cost £3.28 even if I had kept and uploaded every image I had ever made. Which I would guess goes into hundreds of thousands.

All of these storage options seem eminently affordable, and so on the surface, having cheaper storage appears to be reason to celebrate.

Put another way, we don’t have to worry about spending a small fortune to be able to save and store our photographs.

The problem with such cheap storage however, is how complacent, even lazy, it makes us.

Having much larger and more affordable memory cards, where we can store 1000s of images before needing to download them, means we’re less discerning about the images we do store on them.

And, I would argue, with more capacity, there is less incentive to download them as often, meaning when we do, the greater volume of images to organise, edit, process, tag and share, makes us more likely to be overwhelmed and not bother.

So we just dump them wholesale on a hard drive or in the cloud, to be dealt with at a later date. Which of course never comes.

In contrast, if you only had a card that allowed you to store say 50 or 100 images at once, it’s almost certain that you would take more time over each composition, making sure you only captured photographs really worth capturing.

Not 17 near identical variations of the exact same scene.

Then when you did download those 50 or 100 images to a hard drive or the cloud, you would likely spend more time organising them, because you’d be able to do it in a reasonable time frame, not the hours and hours that thousands of images would take.

It’s no coincidence that one of the most popular reasons photographers return to film photography is because you only get 24 or 36 shots on a roll of 35mm film.

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It slows you down, makes you more focused, and increases your perceived value of every image you make – because every image costs real, tangible money, to buy the film, then have it processed and scanned.

Let’s move beyond memory cards, and consider online storage.

With the cloud being cheaper than ever, it means we back up everything, rather than editing down to keep only the very best of our work. Including those 17 sprayed shots of the same scene.

As mentioned above, Flickr for example offers unlimited storage for around £3.28 a month so we could quite easily stored hundreds of thousands, if not millions of images there, made over a period of years.

And then because we’ve stored so much, when we do return to browse the photos, again we become overwhelmed by the thousands of images dumped there.

It becomes like scavenging on a rubbish tip, hoping desperately to find a discarded treasure amongst the ever expanding trash mountain.

We likely stumble across those 17 shot clusters and wonder whey we took even one image of that composition, let alone nearly 20.

All of this serves to diminish your own confidence as a photographer.

If you keep every shot you take, but only one in a 100 is great (a reasonable hit ratio I would suggest), then when you rummage back through your old images, you have a 99% chance of finding something that isn’t much good, and certainly doesn’t reflect what you’re capable of as a  photographer.

But if you kept only that one in a hundred that you loved, when reviewing your past work every image is going to be a winner, and encourage you to seek out more photographs of a similar (and higher) standard.

You see yourself as a much better photographer because (like all the great photographers) you’ve edited down your work and presented only your best to the world.

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Master photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz or Henri Cartier-Bresson are famous for what, perhaps a dozen photographs? Do you think they only made those dozen photographs in their lifetimes and everything they touched was gold?

No, they made thousands, tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of images, and presented us only with their best.

But we see them as masters of their craft.

It’s much the same story if you use physical hard drives as a back up. Because they’re so big, you don’t think about being careful of what you save.

How many TeraBytes of hard and cloud storage are now virtual graveyards of images their creators will never unearth again? I would suggest this number is multiplying at an exponential velocity daily.

Using 35mm film cameras from 2012-17 meant I knew all too well the cost of every frame of film. I simply couldn’t afford to be frivolous with my photography.

Fortunately, even though I don’t shoot film any more, that frugality of shooting carried over back to digital.

A typical 60-120 minute photowalk results in anything from 20-75 photos. I would say 40-50 is about average, which by no coincidence is around the same as the roll or two of film I used to shoot in the same timeframe.

I don’t need 32, 16, even 4GB cards. With older cameras I mostly use 512MB or 1 or 2GB cards (SD and Compact Flash) and I can’t recall a time I filled a card before I was ready to stop making photographs.

I download the photographs after every photowalk, and they sync to my Google Photos, so they’re ready to edit on my phone, iPad or MacBook in the coming days. As they’re deleted from Google Photos, again it syncs and deletes them from my MacBook, so I’m just left with my favourites.

At the end of each month I have perhaps a couple of hundred photos remaining, not thousands or tens of thousands.

And I know that each of the photos have been reviewed and kept for a reason, not just because the storage space is so cheap.

I know I could still be more discerning with my photography, and I still delete far more images than I keep. It’s something I hope I continue to improve.

But even if/when it does, what I also hope is that I avoid the potential perils of cheap storage, shooting and filling up storage space with thousands of images I’ll never look at again.

How about you? Has the increasing affordability of storage influenced how you shoot, edit and save your photos? 

Please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

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10 thoughts on “Storage May Be Cheap But Is It Ruining Your Photography?”

  1. I always took the view when going abroad that I would rather have ten small photo cards than a couple of large ones, I felt that if I had the photos from a whole trip to say Australia on one card and it got lost, damaged or failed, I have never had one that failed yet, then I would lose every photo I had taken. However, if they were spread out over ten cards then I would still have most of them when I got home. Secondly I opened a Flickr account and up loaded them to that as a back up.
    I still tend to use digital cameras a bit like film cameras and think before I press the button, I don’t like machine gun photography, I am quite ruthless and delete any photo that I don’t feel has some merit or future worth.
    Good article.
    Mike

    1. Mike, thanks for your input!

      That makes a lot of sense using multiple cards as a backup, though like you I can’t ever recall a memory card letting me down. But just from the aspect of organising and editing the photos afterwards, this makes it more digestible.

      Like you I never get involved in “machine photography”, indeed with most of my cameras I don’t even know how to activate any continuous shooting modes. Reminds me of the monkeys composing the works of Shakespeare metaphor.

      Great to hear of another ruthless editor too!

  2. My workflow is rather rigorous. On my phone I only “fave” a few photos that I want to post-process in Snapseed/VSCO, the rest is permanently deleted. Photos that I cannot successfully post-process within 5 minutes – I told you this before – will also be deleted. Original photos and post-processed versions go to Dropbox and later also to an external hard drive (although I am a bit sloppy with the latter). I want to keep the original images, because my taste in terms of post-processing sometimes changes, so I want to be able to make new versions.
    The workflow is slightly different for non-mobile photos. I already delete most photos (uninteresting, not in focus) in camera. I import the rest on my laptop. The best photos go to my phone via Dropbox for post-processing in Snapseed/VSCO. From there, the workflow is the same as with mobile photos. I delete all other photos on my laptop after a month or so.

    All in all, I end up with very few photos in storage: only the final versions and their original files (I’d say 200-300 a year).

    1. Robert, I love your ruthless editing and processing!

      Something I haven’t quite mastered is keeping originals and processed images. I usually just delete the originals, because I know I prefer the processed version. Also I don’t generally look back at old photos, as I said in the recent post. But I understand why you keep them, it makes sense.

  3. You are absolutely right. The problem actually starts before storage: the low cost of storage has tricked digital photographers into what we used to call the “burn film” school, where if you shoot enough frames one of them is bound to be worth keeping. Now we can do this so easily, and just keep everything. Of course when you want to find that ‘perfect’ shot you have to sort through a mountain of images.
    In the days of film photography we got advice about “bracketing” exposures, going to +/-2 stops for every image. It made me cringe for the expense as well as the waste. Now we can do this easily at virtually no expense save our time. Ironically we don’t have to, as a ‘bad’ shot can be corrected in post-processing a lot more easily than a thick or thin negative.
    What’s needed is your kind of self-discipline to not keep everything we shoot. Some critical analysis of the stored images to determine success rate: how many frames out of 100 are actually good? It won’t be 50%, surely. Probably not even 25%. If you shoot a lot of experimental stuff it won’t even make that much.
    Lately I’ve been “burning film” because I’m putting the new Canon to the test, trying everything I can think of with it. This is not my normal shooting mode and the images inevitably will not be kept save a few choice shots. I suspect my success rate with this project is less than 10%, but it doesn’t matter because it’s a shakedown of new equipment. Afterward I will go back to “make every shot count”, which is the ingrained training from years of having to foot the bill for film and processing.

    1. Marc, what a juicy response, thank you!

      Yes, it’s like the monkeys in a room randomly bashing at typewriters. If they’re left for long enough, they will write the works of Shakespeare. If you spray your camera on continuous mode then the law of averages means one shot out of every 100/1000/10000 will be good. But yes, who then wants to sift through the 99/999/9999 others to find the gem? Plus it’s not really photography is it? A soulless machine or robot could do a better job. Photography is first about seeing something worth capturing and then framing it in the best way you can.

      For me the hit rate with digital is perhaps 10% at best, sometimes nearer 1%. Which is fine, because I don’t flinch at the cost every time I squeeze the shutter button, as with film.

      That is a great point too about the rates changing when you have a different (new to you) camera. You will of course experiment in all kinds of ways to get a feel for the camera, and see what it can do (and what you can do with it).

      The final images aren’t so important, and sometimes completely unnecessary if you’re simply working out how to best use the camera, the modes, settings etc. After this valuable “shakedown” time as you call it, is done, you will be so much more effective and efficient with the camera. It’s time well invested, and really it’s unavoidable if you want to get the best from the camera and from yourself.

      The beauty with digital is you can burn off a 1000 experimental shots in a few hours and at virtually zero cost, then delete the lot. With film the cost would be extortionate. Going in with the knowledge you’ll be deleting virtually everything gives freedom from that pain of having to sort through and edit the same 1000 images if you hoped to keep most of them.

      Very interesting points, thank you.

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